Pro-Syrian Government aircraft conducted a major strike on the largest hospital in Eastern Aleppo on Saturday, October 1, as part of an ongoing air campaign that has killed hundreds of civilians in the last week and threatens to level the remaining infrastructure in the rebel held half of the Syrian city. Exactly one week earlier, Russian warplanes blew apart an aid convoy and with it the cease fire that had brought hope to 250,000 Syrians who have lived in an Aleppo under siege since the summer of 2012. This indiscriminate warfare represents an evolution of the repression and terror used by the Assad regime to stay in power.
Assad is not fighting a simple rural insurgency, nor does his civil war even somewhat resemble a bipolar struggle. For five years, he has been forced to co-opt a myriad of strategies, new and old, in order to stay afloat among dozens of rebel groups and tribal cleavages. A major part of these strategies has been terrorizing civilians through intimidation and by force of arms. While many media outlets and foreign governments have condemned the damage inflicted on innocents by the Syrian and Russian militaries, the efficacy of a scorched-earth campaign has become clearer in the last week.
The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan displayed how overwhelming firepower does not always equate to increased security during an insurgency. The Field Manual 3 – 24 of the United States Army, developed from the failures and successes of fighting these wars, emphasizes the importance of legitimacy in the eyes of a population over the destruction of enemy combatants. Che Guevara, writing from the other side of an insurgency over half a century ago, described how government reprisals against a population would eventually turn the masses against their leaders, and his success against the brutal Batista regime in Cuba supports this point (Guevara, General Principles of Guerilla Warfare 1959). Given the example of so many failed counter-insurgent campaigns of the last 60 years that have implemented similar methods, why then have Assad and his allies only escalated repression over the course of the Syrian Civil War? And, seeing as Assad is still in power – why has this repression worked?
In such a chaotic conflict, legitimacy through protecting the public at large would be an expensive and risky proposition given the brutality shown by many militias operating against the government and the terror perpetrated by the Islamic State in Eastern Syria. Assad instead engaged in a competition of violence with groups who struggled to outbid the government even prior to Russian intervention in the fall of 2015. While seemingly desperate at times, the barrel bombs dropped on apartment buildings since 2012 and the introduction of ground-penetrating bunker busters against civilian bomb-shelters in early September exhibit the government’s dominance over violence. The devastating and unpredictable nature of these attacks inflicts further psychological damage on a population that sees itself as the active target of the government.
The goal of such destruction is not the capitulation of the rebels but is instead geared towards disabling civilian and rebel infrastructure to show the government’s resolve to back the phrase that its soldiers have taken to scrawling on buildings in contested Aleppo: starve-or-submit. Rebels have responded by allying themselves with known extremist groups; these alliances, however successful in the short-run, only add to the image of a violent but legitimate government under Assad; some analysts believe that this polarization may have been an intended consequence of the most recent Russian airstrikes.
Displaying raw military dominance is a strategy that existed in Syria long before the current administration took power and it is not the only facet of the state’s system of repression. In 1983, Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, quelled a country-wide resistance movement by the Muslim Brotherhood by surrounding and leveling a single city where there was known to be a large insurgent following. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and a clear message was sent to the rest of the population; the Muslim Brotherhood is not largely active in Syria today.
In addition to the regular security forces deployed, the elder Assad set a precedent by creating and using paramilitary “Struggle Companies” that acted outside of regular military command structures and whose ranks were filled with radical Alawites, the minority to which the Assad family belongs. This quasi-state controlled organization allowed the government to subtly project power over its population. Now, the Shabiha, a smuggling ring turned militant, have taken over the job of spreading semi-state-sponsored terror. Their name means ‘ghosts’ in Arabic and their gangs of black-clad, intensely loyal Alawite paramilitary fighters wreaked havoc in the early days of the Civil War. While their ruthlessness certainly fuels tribal conflict, the Shabiha further secures support from the sizeable Alawite minority who would face sectarian reprisal should the Assad regime fall.
Assad’s fight is unwinnable from the air alone, and successfully storming the rebel held half of Aleppo, let alone the remaining regions of the country outside of his control, could only be achieved at massive loss of life and would be unlikely to completely quell insurgency. The Syrian president’s proven potential for brutal repression, however, has deterred much of his population from becoming involved in the war. The mitigated possibility of popular revolt, Assad’s critically loyal following and his military prowess afford him the ability to fight a protracted war against insurgent opponents who have been denied their most basic and effective strategy: the isolation of the government from its people.